Restraint or seclusion should not be used as routine school safety measures; that is, they should not be implemented except in situations where a child’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others and not as a routine strategy implemented to address instructional problems or inappropriate behavior (e.g., disrespect, noncompliance, insubordination, out of seat), as a means of coercion or retaliation, or as a convenience.
How to assist students who act out in school is a difficult challenge.
Since Public Law 94-142, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with serious emotional or behavioral disabilities have attended public school. Teachers might be faced with students who act out in ways that could be injurious to other students, the teacher, or the student themselves.
Teachers are not alone. Other professionals also deal with individuals with psychiatric problems. Here is a report by the American Psychiatric Nurses Association.
Seclusion and restraints are sometimes permitted, but are extreme, controversial, and have been misused for minor offenses in public, charter, and private schools. The recent tragedy in a Northern California private school found that the school violated state rules when the staff put a 13-year-old student with autism face-down in a restraint position for nearly an hour. The student died.
During the 2015–16 school year, 122,000 students (approximately 0.2 percent of all students enrolled) across the nation were physically restrained, mechanically restrained, or secluded. Nearly 86,000 of those students were subjected to physical or mechanical restraint, and over 36,000 were subjected to seclusion.
Recently, Alex Campbell a student with autism recounted how when he was 7 years old his principal dragged him to the “crisis room” down the hall. In this case the room was a storage closet with black-painted walls and a small window too high to reach. Staff would place a desk against the door to keep the occupant from escaping.
Alex claims no one answered him when he asked for help, and that he was placed in the room for minor offenses like ripping up paper. He has become an activist against the use of seclusion and restraints.
Whenever there are complaints about seclusion and restraints, those complaints seem to unfortunately disappear until another episode surfaces and then the outrage begins again.
The National Disabilities Rights Network released a report of violations including a report involving children and restraints and seclusion. They describe many violations involving the use of these two kinds of severe punishment.
Wrightslaw also shares important situations and responses to help parents better understand what is and is not allowed when it comes to students with disabilities and acting out behavior.
What can be used instead of seclusion and restraint? Discipline is enough of a problem in schools that it should be seriously addressed in the school and school district. Administrators and teachers should work with parents in the community to sort out ways to address the needs of children with emotional and behavioral difficulties.
Seclusion and restraint are extreme punishment. What alternative methods can be used instead when dealing with extreme behavior?
Too often parents simply get a booklet at the beginning of the school year that describes rules and behavioral codes.
Here are some suggestions for a more humane student environment. If you would like to add some nonviolent ideas or approaches that have worked for you in your school please share.
- Class Size. It is imperative that students who act out be placed in smaller classes. Teachers are unable to effectively assist a student who struggles to gain control of their behavior in a huge class. It puts the class, the student, and teacher in danger. If an inclusion class is too large, the acting out student requires a self-contained class with fewer students and a teacher who is well-qualified and has learned behavior modification techniques. I once worked in a district that provided one teacher to two students with serious acting out behavior due to autism.
- School Size. A smaller school might be better for a student who has behavioral problems, as long as those who run the school have preparation and real credentials to work with students with emotional and behavioral problems. The school should also have oversight.
- Teacher Preparation. Teachers require instruction to address serious behavioral problems. There are ways to recognize aggressive cues or “trigger” behaviors, like the student leaning forward, raising their voice, getting in your face, etc. And there are reactions that can de-escalate the situation, like a calm voice, refraining from interrupting, using the person’s name, etc. Teachers would benefit from introspection, learning about their own prejudices. Working with aggressive students is tough.
- Parent Involvement. Parents of children who act out must work closely with the school and the teacher. Communication is paramount. Parents should inform the teacher ASAP when the child has a problem at home that could carry over to the classroom. If they have disciplinary techniques that work at home, teachers should know this as well. Teachers must also share information with parents. If an incident occurs in school, the parents must be informed immediately.
- IEP Meeting. Parents must agree beforehand on the disciplinary measures that will support the student. It’s critical that they understand the plan. Parents should not sign off on anything that makes them feel uncomfortable about the discipline of their child. It might take much discussion and time to work out an IEP that all can agree upon. The same behavior plan might be incorporated at home for a smooth transition. If there’s a social worker involved, their ideas should be part of the plan.
- Student Feedback. It’s important to talk to the student and to try to understand what triggers their anger and what helps them be calm. Teachers and parents should include the student as much as possible on decisions made addressing their behavior. Helping students know they can go to a place in the classroom where they can count to ten or create their own time out might help them with self-regulation.
- Classroom Atmosphere: Special education teachers used to study the “engineered classroom.” Some students are distracted by bright colors and too much “stuff” hanging on walls. While classrooms shouldn’t feel cold and uncaring, they can be organized to help students who react to too much stimuli. Study carrels might be helpful.
- School Staff Preparation. Students with emotional and behavioral difficulties are a schoolwide concern. Office staff, custodians, bus drivers, resource officers, counselors and principals need to know about any child who struggles and who may act out. They need to know how to react. Staff should be included in IEP meetings and discuss methods to put in place to be better prepared to avoid problems and for such an event if it happens. They should be clear what is permitted and not allowed! They should also brainstorm and understand the triggers that might set a student to act out.
- Behavior Modification. Behavior modification is critical to working with students with emotional and behavioral problems. Understanding how to respond and what behaviors to ignore when it comes to behavior, and how to use positive reinforcement is critical for teachers and anyone at the school who may come in contact with the student. Parents might benefit by learning the principles behind behavior modification too.
- Clear Rules. Too many rules are confusing to students. Have several rules and make them clear to all students.
- Assessment. Some say there needs to be universal screening for acting out behavior. This seems overblown. Behavioral checklists and observational information are useful. Most teachers and parents recognize when behavior is consistently negative and extreme or when a student behaves especially strangely.
- Reduce Complaints. Alex Campbell’s complaint that he was overly punished for cutting paper is an example of extreme discipline. Teachers or staff need to understand how to ignore irritating behavior and not overreact applying harsh punishment. Too often the punishment doesn’t fit the action, and seclusion and restraint become happenstance.
- Models of Good Discipline. Public schools should set an example for parents demonstrating good discipline techniques. No school should engage in corporal punishment. Students should never be struck or handcuffed, or be restrained in such a way that the school looks like a prison. The PTA might include an inservice presentation to parents and teachers about the discipline solutions for the particular age-group at the school.
- Mentors. Students who act out often want attention. A volunteer program through the PTA or other outside group might help.
- Medication. Medication might be necessary, but principals and teachers should refer students to physicians to make this determination. If a student is prescribed medication involving their behavior, it is important that the school follows through on administering it if necessary, and teachers should be included in understanding how the student will react and about any side-effects that could occur. Too often students don’t remember to take their medication, or teachers are not informed about it. When students are placed on medication, the best scenario is for psychologists, teachers, and parents to work together and record student reactions.
- Academics. When students act out, it could be because the school work is too difficult. Or the work is too easy and the student is bored. This is a simplistic reason for severe behavior outbursts, but one that could be overlooked. Another question, do students get sufficient breaks from school work? Do they get enough recess?
While students who act out are a challenge, finding ways to help them settle and become engaged in school is a satisfying reward for teachers and parents who care for the students at school and home. While seclusion and restraint have been considered a solution to subdue behaviorally troubled students in the past, it is time to work to evolve to something better.